Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Birdbrain

Australian Dance Theatre
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
(2005)

Production shot
Production shot

Wow!

In recent years I have seen some very impressive highly physical dance work - Wim Vanderkeybus and Ultima Vez' Blush and NDT2 spring to mind - but for sheer physicality I have seen nothing like the Australian Dance Company. With training in disciplines as wide-ranging as classical ballet, breakdance, martial arts and yoga, these dancers have enormous physical prowess. To see half a dozen of them flying horizontally through the air to land on their stomachs and roll or even spring up in perfect unison is a sight which has to be seen to be believed. And to keep up this level of commitment and physical effort for seventy minutes is impressive indeed.

But if the physicality was all there was to it, if we were seeing nothing more than acrobatics, then we might be impressed, but that's all. However, Birdbrain is much more than that. The publicity says

Pluck all the tradition from Swan Lake, add rapid techno music and astonishing dance at breakneck speed and you've got Birdbrain

For Birdbrain is a radical reworking, indeed a deconstruction, of Swan Lake. With gestures towards the original choreography and the classical ballet style, the piece looks "between the crevices", as artistic director Garry Stewart says. And it does so with respect for "an historical icon" and not a little comedy.

Stewart seeds the piece with many clues as to what we are looking at, whether through video projection, interpolating pieces of the original music, or, most frequently (and funnily), through the dancers wearing tee-shirts with their names on. On one occasion we have four dancers who are Odette when facing one way and Odile the other; on another a whole host of "lovers" appear. One section which sticks in the mind is the four cygnets who begin in the time-honoured way with hands crossed and held in front of them but then go into a fantastic series of contortions but still holding hands, as if they are stuck together. Hilarious and very impressive too.

But it would be doing the piece an injustice to see it just as a piece of comedy at the expense of the original. It isn't: deconstructionist though it may be, it takes a very respectful, indeed affectionate, approach to what is probably the most popular piece in the whole classical ballet repertoire. The time flew by and the long applause from a pretty packed house said it all. If you're a dance lover, whether of classical ballet or contemporary dance, see it!

And you can see it at

Eden Court, Inverness (15th Feb)
macrobert, Stirling (18th Feb)
The Lowry, Salford (22nd Feb)
QEH, London (2nd Mar)
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry (8th Mar)
Gardner Arts Centre, Brighton (10th Mar)
Wycombe Swan, High Wycombe (12th Mar)
Hall for Cornwall, Truro (15th - 16th Mar)
Theatre Royal, Glasgow (2nd - 23rd March)

Its companion piece, Age of Unbeauty, can be seen at

Snape Maltings Concert Hall (25th - 26th Feb)
QEH, London (4th - 5th Mar)
Nottingham Playhouse (25th Mar)

Reviewer: Peter Lathan